Robert Nighthawk - Prowling with the Nighthawk
Written by John MillerRobert Nighthawk - Prowling with the Nighthawk, Document DOCD-32-20-6
I recently picked up this re-release of an earlier Document CD, and have been pleased with what an excellent job Document has done with the re-issue. The program is generous, with 26 performances by Robert Nighthawk, recorded in the years 1937--1952 for six different record labels, and in a variety of ensemble settings. The notes accompanying the CD share a wealth of biographical and discographical information on Robert Nighthawk, and I refer interested parties to them for that kind of information. I will confine the discussion here to his music.
The earliest recordings presented here feature Robert Nighthawk working with Big Joe Williams seconding him on guitar and on several tracks, Sonny Boy Williamson 1 (John Lee Williamson) on harmonica. With two exceptions, "Don't Mistreat Your Woman" and "G-Man", for which Nighthawk played slide in Vastapol, these cuts find Nighthawk flat-picking out of G position in standard tuning, while Big Joe and Sonny Boy riff more or less non-stop. It is not what you would call a nifty sound, and there doesn't appear to have been a notable amount of listening going on between the players but it is strongly played and forcefully expressed. Apropos of this, I congratulate Document for choosing NOT to simply list the songs on the program in chronological order, as is most often done on their re-issues. Such an order would exacerbate the sense of sameness you would get on these tracks by hearing them consecutively. Nighthawk's playing and singing on these cuts is excellent, as it is throughout the program.
The next session, recorded six months later in November of 1937, finds Nighthawk joined by Henry Townsend and Walter Davis (on some numbers), in addition to Big Joe and Sonny Boy. Tracks from this session include the Davis-less "Take It Easy Baby", which bears a marked similarity to "Bottle Up And Go", the also Davis-less "CNA Blues", which features a great horde of three guitarists and Sonny Boy playing high straight harp, and "Mamie Lee Blues", with Nighthawk flat-picking in C, and Walter Davis having a tough time hitting the chord changes with the band.
Speckled Red joined Nighthawk and Sonny Boy for the next session, which yielded "Ol Mose", "Every Day And Night", and "Freight Train Blues". "Ol Mose" is a riotous party number, recorded elsewhere as "Oh Red", with Robert Nighthawk doing some really expert Swing-style flat-picking in C, utilizing a four-to-the-bar back-up style rather than the more country boom-chang back-up. Speckled Red does fine backing Nighthawk's vocals, but gets the rhythm flipped so that he and Nighthawk are out of sequence in their timing every time Nighthawk solos. The last pass through the form is kind of a shambles and is the sort of thing that would never make it onto a recording nowadays; I don't know that that's altogether a good thing, because despite the differences in their understanding of the phrasing, there's a great feel to the take. "Every Day and Night" is superlative, one of the strongest tracks on the CD. It has an unusual form: it starts with a 16-bar break over the I chord that is then followed by what would be the last three lines of a normal 16-bar blues, going to the IV chord twice. Nighthawk flat-picks expertly in G, sings outstandingly, and the piece rocks along with a great Boogie feel. "Freight Train Blues", for which Nighthawk flat-picks out of C reprises Speckled Red's phrasing problems with "Ol Mose", but to a lesser degree.
Robert Nighthawk's next session yielded but one track, the solo Vastapol slide number "Friar's Point Blues", and it is stellar, showing Nighthawk to have been very near the top of the heap for slide players working at that time. His tone, timing, intonation and touch are impeccable, and his singing is really fine, too. He shows a Tampa Red influence in his tone and the way he makes his notes, but his sound is not slavish imitation, by any means. In the first four bars he plays a descending bass line against his vocal. When he gets to the IV chord in the fifth bar, he hits the bass note needed to suggest it while keeping the I chord going in the treble. He adopts the same strategy for the V chord in the ninth bar. Hearing this track made me feel that it is a real tragedy that Nighthawk did not record more solo numbers.
Excellent sessions with pianist Ernest Lane and Willie Dixon on bass folowed in 1948 and 1949. These cuts, "Return Mail Blues", "Black Angel" and "My Sweet Lovin' Woman", feature Nighthawk playing electric slde in Vastapol, and his tone is sumptuous, really beautiful. Lane is also a really nice player and particularly shines on "Return Mail Blues".
Nighthawk returned to the studio a year later with Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Ethel Mae listed on vocals, though I could not hear her. Nighthawk once again excels in his slide playing. An interesting feature of "Six Three O" is his intermittently "short" phrasing, and the fact that it doesn't seem to faze his accompanists one bit. "Jackson Town Girl" is a re-working of Leroy Carr's "Shady Lane Blues", and features Pinetop to great advantage. "Annie Lee Blues" is just a great track.
1951 found Nighthawk recording with Roosevelt Sykes or Bob Call on piano, Ransom Knowling on bass and probably Jump Jackson on drums. Their version of "Kansas City Blues" features a great groove and some hair-raising slap bass playing by Knowlings. "Crying Won't Help You" offers yet another reminder of Nighthawk's mastery of tone production with a slide. "Take It Easy Baby" has a great boogie feel and "Feel So Bad" features some really bad drumming. Listening to the tracks from this session made me feel that a lot of the roughness attributed to ensemble blues of this period is a function of the recording engineers of the time not knowing how to record the bands. To be fair to the engineers, the ensembles were tricky, most often with vocals, electric guitars, acoustic bass and piano, and drums. The combination of acoustic and electric elements resulted in wildly disparate amounts of sustain and decay times on the different instruments. That having been said, a lot of the ensemble recordings from this period of the blues sound like crap, and it is not for a want of good musicianship. The music is not the problem--the sound is.
The last session on the CD, from 1952, finds Nighthawk joined by Ransom Knowlings and an unidentified drummer and second guitarist. Their recording of "The Moon Is Rising" is excellent, with great ensemble playing, singing and lyrics. A surprising cover of Tommy Johnson's "Maggie Campbell Blues" follows with this same line-up, and the expert drumming gives it a very funky groove. Nighthawk plays the song out of Spanish tuning, as did Tommy Johnson, and it is the only song on the CD for which Nighthawk used Spanish tuning. The track ends with a fade, which was pretty unusual at the time, I think, at least on blues recordings.
What impressions linger after listening to this CD, especially after hearing other recordings of Robert Nighthawk backing Sleepy John Estes and Joe Williams on their records? Nighthawk sounds to have been a consummate professional in his playing and singing, with an interesting sort of "compartmentalized" quality to his playing, so that he tended to have a characteristic sound for each tuning/position in which he played the guitar that didn't necessarily manifest itself as being part of a thoroughgoing musical vision or "sound". In other words, rather than sounding like one musician playing occasionally in different keys or tunings, he really sounded like a different musician depending on which key/position he was playing. It is a quality that makes you wonder how much Robert Nighthawk could do that never made it onto a record. His singing more than anything else created the unity in his sound, and it was very strong. Like any other musician, he benefitted from distinctive material, and in the instances on the CD when he had that type of song, as on "Friar's Point Blues" and "Every Day And Night", you can feel everything go up a couple of notches. I really admire the musicianship of Robert Nighthawk, who came up in an acoustic era, and had to re-figure how to make his music when the Blues shifted to an electric sound. It is good to have all these songs by him collected in one place by Document, and they are to be congratulated for an outstanding re-issue CD here.
PROGRAM: Tough Luck; Six Three O; Take It Easy Baby; Lonesome World; Friar's Point Blues; Ol Mose; Sweet Pepper Mama; Return Mail Blues; My Friend Has Forsaken Me; G-Man; Every Day And Night; The Moon Is Rising; Kansas City Blues; Crying Won't Help You; CNA; Black Angel Blues; My Sweet Lovin' Woman; Don't Mistreat Your Woman; Maggie Campbell-1; Prowling Nighthawk; Jackson Town Girl; Feel So Bad; Mamie Lee; Freight Train Blues; Take It Easy Baby; Annie Lee Blues